You're Only as Good as Their Word: xoJane, Where the Commenters Reign

Jane Pratt, founding editor of Sassy and Jane magazines, is not the most popular person on xoJane. The builder of one major media empire after another, and arguably one of the most famous editors of all time, is only the sixth most prevalent voice on a site that bares her own name. She is not being eclipsed by a set of upstart, hungry writers or editors. Instead, it is by a few individuals going by the names Your Mom’s Bra, peachgrenade, vivahate and MyCuntYourFace.

On xoJane, it’s the commenters whose words carry the most weight.

This is not because Jane is distant and detached, an invisible force on the site. She is not, nor has she ever been, that sort of editor. Instead, she’s present in a human way, frequently adding her own voice to the mix.

On top of adding editor’s notes to her writers’ pieces and commenting with regularity, Jane has her own column on xoJane called Jane’s Phone. There, she posts emails, texts, and other miscellania directly from her phone, along with her related (or not-so-related) stream of consciousness. She makes it a point to seem like she is talking directly to you. And so, the comment community on xoJane responds in kind.

“Ohhh if we can use this as an open forum for suggestions I would absolutely love to see a regular article profiling commenters,” shares a commenter on one of Jane’s posts.

2 hours 38 minutes later, Jane responds.

“This is a brilliant idea! Thank you! I want to write them. Who is first?”

If the cacophony of directionless chatter and lack of order in online comments sections can make the space akin to an insane asylum, then xoJane, and Jane herself, has handed the keys over to the inmates.

But, incredibly, the xoJane comments section does not conjure up that image. Conversely, the space comes across as a very rowdy but regulated, very large but intimate gathering at the neighborhood corner bar, one where deep philosophical discussions are punctuated by jokes about farting during sex.

“For lack of a better word, it feels like a community. (And I’m usually the type of person who would roll my eyes [for] saying or reading something like that),” shares xoJane commenter Kelly Herrera.

Kelly’s eye-rolling reaction to the word is understandable. “Community” is currently a white-hot buzzword brandished around for great impact but with very little understanding of what is it or can be capable of -- much like a sword in the hands of a four-year-old. But the concept of community is an important one, especially when trying to define what makes one space where people talk online a community, but another similar looking and functioning place not.

xoJane is “one of the most active communities on Disqus,” shares Steve Roy, VP of Marketing and Communications at Disqus (the commenting system xoJane employs). This is no small feat, with Disqus being used by 2.5 million sites. To achieve such involvement, there must be something distinct driving xoJane’s community.

“I’d never commented more than once on any specific website before,” says Kelly. “[Then] I started looking forward to reading the comments as much as the posts.” Before long, she was logging hours a day hanging out in the xoJane comments section. She knows there’s something special there, a reason why she keeps coming back.

“What makes the comment section on xoJane unique are the commenters. I’ve seen comments on various posts like, ‘I’ve never thought of it that way before,’ or along the lines of, ‘Even though I don’t agree with you, I respect your opinion.’ You don’t see that on a lot of other sites.”

It’s true, you don’t see that on a lot of other sites. But why? Does a mutually respectful comment community just arise from the dust? And why do the cynics and trolls, spammers and agitators stay away? What does xoJane do that is so different?

Those involved with the site can offer a few hints.

“To me, [xoJane] reads like a bunch of open letters to the world from various women (and the occasional dude),” shares Sara Benincasa, contributor and frequent commenter on xoJane. “It’s like getting to peek into a bunch of people’s diaries, with their permission. And I think that fosters a sense of inclusion.”

“What is distinctive about xoJane is the author identities play such a strong role,” states Steve Roy. “Readers can feel like they actually know the writers and that certainly engenders a sense of community.”

This sense of “knowing” someone, with a large degree of openness, is pervasive on xoJane. Emily McCombs, Executive Editor for xoJane, has shared her trivials with drug, alcohol, and sex addiction, becoming a foster parent, and accidentally pooping her pants. She is hardly the only one who has put all of herself onto -- and into -- xoJane. Every xoJane writer places their embarrassments and self-preservation aside for the sake of sharing, something they see as a sort of social, community good.

What is also clear is that how something is shared is just as important as what is being shared.

Jane Pratt is vehemently anti-snark, a policy she holds for herself in her own life, as well as for her writers. As snark is the lifeblood of online editorial writing, this can present its challenges -- but also its rewards.

A competitor of of xoJane, Jezebel (a Gawker property), employs snark full-tilt -- to often hilarious result. But it comes as a price. Just like on xoJane, the editorial voice guides the voice of the commentariat.

“The commenters on Jezebel can be really brutal,” shares Sara Benincasa, who contributes to Jezebel as well as xoJane. “A woman (or someone posing as a woman) did once express the desire to rape me with a rusty shovel because I’d suggested a letter writer ought not interfere with her friend’s adulterous liaisons.”

Alternatively, Sara says the writer/commenter relationship on xoJane is “kinder, more loving.” That’s a statement another xoJane commenter and contributor agrees with.

“Unlike other sites, you seldom see people engaging in pointless snark for snark’s sake,” shares Allan Mott.

Without the snark, without the fear of immediate and vengeful retribution from other commenters, anyone who shares in the comments section can be more open and honest -- a basic cornerstone for one person building a relationship with another, even in the comments section.

“There’s a sense of trust there [among the commenters],” says Kelly. “We’re protective of each other. We’re interested in getting to know more about each other. There’s an opportunity to really ‘listen’ to and learn from others that isn’t present on other sites.”

In turn, the editors and writers of xoJane express true interest and value in what the commentariat has to say.

Alison Freer is an xoJane writer who, on top of her day job as a stylists for film and video shoots, she writes about fashion in the manner that permeates all xoJane content. It’s less about Dos and Don’ts, more about having fun -- even when that fun is in part navigating what is difficult fashion territory.

In her article “Electric Teepees And Neon Dreamcatchers: How To Shop For Native American Fashion Ethically and Blissfully,” she begins with a note for all readers, but to one commenter specifically:

I absolutely could not have written this without the help and resources of many, many dedicated Native bloggers and specifically without having read and absorbed the brilliant words of xoJane commenter 10100111001. I honestly really owe ten million and one smooches to [her].

“I would like to take a second to thank Alison for being rad,” replies 10100111001 in the comments.

“Oh boo,” responds Alison, “you are too kind. You were obvs the source of much inspiration."

“Many times, the audience simply wants to react to the writer and it’s a bit of a thrill as a reader when a writer reacts directly back to you,” says Steve from Disqus, “[it’s] something we see happening a lot on xoJane’s discussions,”

Writers, editors and commenters mingling in the comment section is normal on xoJane. But it’s not normal elsewhere. At times it can seem like the writers and editors of other editorial properties don’t even recognize that their commenters and their comments exist -- even if the whole editorial operation resides only online. In other instances, it appears as though the writers and editors actively avoid the comments section, as one would shark-infested waters. Or, when a writer or editor wades into a discussion, it’s with a spear, to take down a potential threat.

On xoJane, the relationship is more harmonious, more equal in the power balance, with both parties getting more in return for their investment.

In “My Best Friend’s Boyfriend Called Me The C-Word. Like 17 Times,” writer Daisy Barringer, Sports Editor for xoJane, explains how a weekend with friends in Tahoe became an abusive event. The 475 comments left as a response to her piece offered advice and support, from her fellow writers and commenters, many of which she replied to herself.

She followed up that piece with “My Best-Friend’s Boyfriend Called A C*nt: The Aftermath,” in which she states

Over a month ago, I wrote about how one of my best friend’s boyfriend completely unleashed on me... [and] your comments on that post were amazing. They were thoughtful, raw, honest, and gave me a lot to think about. A lot.

The commenters on xoJane are rewarded with responses, and credit for having an impact on the writers, as well as something else extremely valuable within any community: transparency.

Madeline Cronin, Social Media & Partnerships Manager at xoJane, began a weekly column where the editors choose their favorite comment from the week. Additionally, commenters are invited to call-in to the weekly staff meeting.

But perhaps what is most valuable is the relationships the commenters have built with each other. From the comments section came the budding of friendships between frequent commenters. To continue their conversations, their correspondence traveled to Twitter and Facebook, where they would talk about “anything ranging from makeup and hair products to mental illness and the death of close friends or family members,” says Kelly.

Then, “this year, a bunch of us started having Skype parties, where we video chat with each other,” continues Allan. “That atmosphere is no different than an actual cocktail party you’d have at your house.”

Both Allan and Kelly characterize these friendships as genuine, even though they have yet to meet any of these people in “real life.” But there’s no denying the realness of these relationships, how deeply felt these friendship are, and how important they’ve become to the commenters’ lives.

In November of 2012, Allan Mott’s mother suddenly passed away. He recounts the time he spent between learning she had collapsed and discovering she had died in “How the ‘Cult of xoJane’ Helped Get Me Through the Worst Days of My Life” on xoJane.

Like many of us whose online and offline lives have bleed together, he tweeted, almost without thinking, about his mother having an heart attack and being rushed to the OR. He then tweeted one final time when he was told of her death. Allan was, at that time and for several days thereafter, surrounded by family. He was not alone. But he would not have been able to tolerate the grief, he says, without what happened next.

First, he received a picture of a drawing showing the greedy child from The Giving Tree being smushed by a giant apple. That drawing had been sent by xoJane commenter edotwoods. Then he received a “lovely” email from xoJane commenter MarisaSays. A candlelight vigil was held for his mother by commenter LindseyKeefner. He was receiving was seemed like an endless amount of heartfelt responses from those he had met in the xoJane comments section.

“The one that impacted me the most,” Allan says, “was a series of direct messages” sent by xoJane commenter Raul Duke.

In them, she said, “Allan, you have been in my thoughts all day. I think there’s only a handful of people ‘in real life’ who, if they lost their Mom, would affect me as deeply. I’m just letting you know that I truly love and care about you.”

Allan is still recovering and healing, but having that terrible moment be met with an outpouring from the xoJane community, he says, has helped him make one of the worst years of his life also one of his best.

And yet, he also believes that the “sense of overall support and community” has begun to change as the site has grown in popularity. Other changes they have no control over have also threatened the community.

“For me, the true ‘salad days’ of the xoJane comments section ended when the site switched over to the updated Disqus system,” Allan says. “Prior to this, commenters only had the option to ‘Like’ other comments and -- best of all -- had their name and profile logged for everyone to see when they did so. But this ended when the new system introduced an anonymous up/downvote system that allowed people to support terrible behavior without ever owning up to it.”

But no matter. For Allan, that’s not what is most important.

“Truthfully, having established such strong ties with the people I’ve connected with outside the site, I don’t feel [that a theoretical] loss [of xoJane or their commenter community] would be as strong as some might think. I would miss it, for sure, but the community that drove me to it has, at this point, naturally expanded beyond the site itself.”

Both online and off, life goes on. Allan’s certainly has. He’s recently landed a new job, and with his increase in income, has decided to do some traveling.  He knows of a few faces he needs to see in person for the first time.